Registry Without Breeds - A Thought Experiment

Part 1

Disclaimer: The following is a thought experiment. It stems from many years of frustration with the concepts of purebred dogs, dog breeds, and registries, and came to a head in my mind suddenly in spring of 2008 as I faced the implications of the "fast-tracking" of the Chinook breed into the American Kennel Club's "Foundation Stock Service" and "Miscellaneous Class" -- preparatory to the AKC takeover of that breed. When I wrote this I was thinking out loud, attempting to get my thoughts pinned down on paper, perhaps so that others could help me find flaws in my thinking, if flaws there be. Don't freak out. What you will read here is really radical.

Registries and Dog Politics

Odd as it might seem, canine registries -- all of them -- be it AKC, CKC, UKC, or the rabble of commercial paper mills such as ConKC, FIC USKC and the rest, or even the single-breed registries like the Shiloh Shepherds' ISSR -- are a fertile culture medium for dog politics. They work hand in glove with the showdog world, itself an extremely political scene, in many cases being the show-licensing and show-record-keeping bodies which also license dog show judges and confer dog show titles.

The major all-breed national registries are fervent advocates of "breed purity." This is demonstrated by their completely closed stud books and their usual practice of beginning a stud book with a small handful of founders. The hothouse atmosphere of showdog breeding encourages such a stance, as extremes of inbreeding and artificial selection foster the tiny, precise subtleties of "breed type" around which the dog show world revolves. National registries maintain a monopolistic control on dog breeding by the practice of defining dog breeds (through approval of breed standards and the power to select and to limit breed foundation stock), and by the "recognition" game. Big registries only "recognise" other registries who will play ball with them, using the same arbitrary rules and restrictions they do. And they will only register foreign imports that are already registered, with three-generation pedigrees, from other "recognised" registries. (Anti-trust laws don't apply in the case of canine registries, I guess.)

Chinooks -- A Case in Point

In the case of major breeds (GSD, Golden Retriever) maybe the politics don't matter quite so much, remaining largely confined to their natural breeding ground which is the breed clubs themselves. But in the instance of "rare" breeds, they often take centre stage. The Shiloh Shepherd breed suffered a major fragmentation crisis in which clubs and registries proliferated, splitting the breed several ways, with attendant major disagreements over which dogs could or could not be registered as Shilohs. Right now AKC is trying to do a hostile takeover on the Chinook breed, having acquired by dubious means a 600-dog database for its FSS, in which it has enrolled a large number of dogs without their owner's desire or consent. The Chinook is a manmade breed that originated in the 1920s from mongrel and crossbred origins, which suffered at least three major bottleneck crises, and which emerged from the last such crisis in 1981 with but 11 closely-related individuals to carry on the strain. Presently registered with the United Kennel Club, the UKC Chinook now has a number of "Cross" bloodlines that include partially-assimilated outcrosses to other breeds. There is a substantial population of these Chinook Cross dogs -- but of course AKC and "The Parent Club" (Chinook Club of America -- a minority faction in the breed as a whole) propose to discard those bloodlines as unnecessary, "not purebred" and therefore contrary to the philosophy of the AKC registry. The Chinook has existed happily and satisfactorily up to this point in the UKC (a 100-year-old alternative registry in the USA), which understands the Cross situation and has not hindered the efforts of Chinook breeders to broaden their breed's perilously narrow genetic base. (Even the "Cross" dogs typically exhibit COIs on the order of 20%, while Chinook "purebreds" are usually in excess of 30%, some as high as 47% COI.) Many -- possibly the majority of Chinook breeders -- do not want their breed in the closed studbook of AKC, or at least, not at the cost of losing the Cross lines. But a power play is already far advanced. The breed is poised to enter Miscellaneous class, and could be given full AKC status at almost any time thereafter. The "parent club" CCA operates under considerable secrecy, and those outside it for the most part until quite recently seemed either confused about the timeline and the requirements for AKC entry, or discouraged and acquiescent. The almost inevitable outcome looks like a major splitting of the breed's gene pool! (CCA may be forced by popular indignation among a majority of breeders to back down on their anti-Cross stand, but as the FAQs on the club’s website presently stand, it seems unlikely that AKC would accept any of the Cross lines; in any case, the final decision is with the registry.)

The point here is that people disagree about which dogs should be called "purebred Chinooks" and which should not. The result is a split in the gene pool such that the two or three groups involved are no longer available to one another for breeding purposes, even if the owners were willing.

Siberian Huskies and Seppalas

The Chinook scenario is familiar enough to me. The Siberian Husky breed and its forced offshoot, the Seppala Siberian Sleddog (SSSD), have had similar political troubles. The SSSD Project itself began, as an entity independent of The Canadian Kennel Club and its Siberian Husky stud book, when CKC declined to allow genetic renewal of Seppala strain and refused to register the first Russian import Siberian male since 1930, Shakal iz Solovyev, brought to Canada by my kennel. Shakal had an FCI Export Pedigree, but CKC did not 'recognise' the registry that issued it, and in any case demanded three generations of 'registered' ancestry. In a further show of arbitrary control, they refused even to admit the possibility of CKC registration for third-generation descendants of the imported male -- dogs that would then have had the requisite three-generation pedigree.

In other words, CKC claimed the right to run our breeding programme for us, to dictate which dogs were or were not acceptable for breeding. In order to begin the job of genetic renewal for Seppala strain, we were obliged to withdraw from CKC. We petitioned Agriculture Canada and were allowed to found a new animal pedigree association in 1997, which itself would in turn play the same exclusion game -- by defining exactly which dogs would form the founder group for the SSSD, a process that necessarily excluded most of the Siberian Husky breed, (since the new "evolving breed" that was created had to be clearly distinct from the Siberian Husky breed), concentrating just upon the original Seppala strain that came down to the 1960s through two kennels (owned by J. D. McFaul and William L. Shearer III) plus the new Siberia import stock. So in order to continue our breeding programme, we were forced to splinter, to become schismatics.

Shortly after the SSSD Project's new-breed initiative was formalised, a racing Siberian Husky breeder in the western USA saw the Project website, liked the idea, and talked about it to two other breeders -- who liked it, too -- so much so that they went to the Louisiana commercial registry "Continental Kennel Club" (which has been accused of choosing its very name in order to profiteer on the recognition-factor of the CKC initials), with a proposal to hijack the Seppala Siberian Sleddog breed name, breed standard, and a few other useful items. And lo and behold, in 2002 a licensed ConKC 'activity club' was born, called the "International Seppala Siberian Sleddog Club" with an initial registry population of 200+ (which they now claim to have grown to 600+, which is easily possible with puppy-mill breeders on board). It now plays a similar exclusion-game, resulting in a three-way split among the SSSD Project, the ISSSC, and the 'diehard' AKC Seppala faction. The politics of that three-way split were directly responsible for the extinction of the pure Seppala McFaul/Shearer bloodline in the USA.

Here again, the point I wish to emphasise is that a schism occurred when the registry attempted to impose its will concerning whether a dog could be called a "purebred Siberian Husky" and bred to other "purebred Siberian Huskies"; the result was independent gene pools unavailable to one another.

Part 2

Defining Dog Breeds

When I went to Agriculture Canada in 1996 with my problems, I was told by the Animal Registration Officer that they were in process of reviewing the Animal Pedigree Act, and that they were working on the problem of defining animal breeds. As far as I know, nothing ever came of either initiative. I'm not aware of any "white papers" embodying proposed APA revisions, and I never heard a word of enlightenment about the knotty matter of how to define a dog breed.

The two problems were related, needless to say. The Act stipulates that the Minister must be satisfied "that the breed is a breed determined in accordance with scientific genetic principles" in order for an Animal Pedigree Association to be incorporated. With respect to the recognition of "distinct breeds," the Act says:

34.(4) In determining whether animals have evolved into a new breed the Minister must be satisfied that the animals bear a physical resemblance to and have the same genetic make-up as the breed into which the animals were intended to evolve, and that the animals have been reproducing with genetic stability.
That, in my opinion, is not a satisfactory definition of a breed. Other relevant portions of the Act are even less specific, or else employ the same kind of circular reasoning and tail-chasing language.

If I may say so, I was at least somewhat ahead of the game when I began negotiations with Agriculture, since I had already been forced to consider the matter of dog breeds and to define them for myself, in the course of writing "Purebred Dog Breeds into the 21st Century." In that document I proposed that dog breed identity rests upon a tripod of three crucial factors: ancestry, breed purpose, and breed type. That was a little better than what the Act says, but not by much.

No Such Thing?

For the truth is, that there is no such thing in nature as an animal breed. All distinctions in animal taxonomy below the species level are relative, transient, and ephemeral. Zoology does not even deal with "breeds" -- it admits only subspecies and variations within a species and argues endlessly about those. When zoologists are often scarcely even able to say for certain which populations constitute species (as is emphatically the case within genus Canis where the domestic dog resides along with his wolf cousins), how then shall it be possible to distinguish something like a "purebred" dog breed?

A breed is a mental construct only; nothing more. It is created as a practical matter when type requirements and, more importantly, a pedigree barrier are set in place. Animals conforming to the type requirements are then bred inter se to use Agriculture's language) behind the protection of the pedigree barrier, usually under an inbreeding regime.

Remove the pedigree barrier and the inbreeding and the breed no longer exists as a functional reality, or at least will revert to mongrel status in short order. Siberian Huskies, for example, will readily mate and produce fertile progeny with german shepherds, or greyhounds, or labrador retrievers, Chinese Shar-Pei, etc. There is no natural impediment to such matings; only a human concept backed up by the isolation of kennel fencing. As Dr. James E. Seltzer wrote:

"To anticipate and avoid arguments about inviolability of pure breeds and racial purity, I need to say up front that pure canine breeds exist primarily in the minds of the dog fancy and are simply paperwork exercises codified in the registries of the various national kennel clubs. They do not exist in the flesh and blood reality of dogs living in the real world. Dog registries and closed stud books are a recent invention of today's dog fancy - originating only a little more than a century ago. The partnership between man and dog reaches back much further. Robert K. Wayne of the University of California, Los Angeles and his colleagues now have evidence that dogs could have been domesticated 100,000 years ago -- if not earlier.
"What comprises a breed is not a unique set of genes, neatly packaged with clear boundaries that identify what is and what is not a member of the breed. AKC registration is not especially meaningful for defining the attributes of [a dog breed.] [ ... ] What distinguishes one breed from another is the relative allele frequencies of the aggregate set of genes that serve as blueprints for the breeds of dogs."

Part 3

Dog Breeds and Politics

That which is not natural often tends to be, or to become, political. Such is the case with dog breeds, in which the idea of a breed has in most cases become attached to something rather exactly resembling the Aryan racial purism of the Nazis, in which great importance is attached to key phenotype "markers" that are in turn associated with the notion of superiority or even "perfection." (The old-timer dog breeders of half a century ago often used to attach great importance to the use of a "stud dog perfect in every way," bred to a variety of bitches to found a bloodline. The breed standard itself is sometimes referred to as the "Standard of Perfection.")

Breed clubs, as mentioned previously, are a fertile hotbed for the cultivation of dog politics. Power struggles, exclusivism, elitism and plain old backstabbing are all daily fare in canine breed clubs. They war both with one another and within their own membership. At the moment, for example, there are four Chinook breed clubs, each with varying points of view, allegiances, registry affiliations, etc., and no love lost among them, needless to say. Part of the AKC FSS game consists of the anointed "parent club," the CCA, scheming to cut the Chinook Cross bloodlines and their owners out of the breed altogether. A minority registry under the International Seppala Association was founded by one major breeder because because none of the existing clubs would take seriously either Chinook working purpose or the need for genetic diversity in the breed. A majority of Chinook people seem content with the traditional registry, the UKC, which has treated the needs of the breed rather fairly; but the AKC/FSS/CCA initiative threatens terminal splitting of an already threatened gene pool.

When I argued for the acceptance of Siberia import Shakal iz Solovyev in the Siberian Husky stud book of CKC, I briefed the Club on the unacceptably narrow breed foundation, the genetic losses through bottlenecking over the breed's history, etc. I also made the same information available to the Siberian Husky Club of Canada, of which I was a member at that time. SHCC's reaction was not to go to bat for its member with CKC, but primly to stand aside and state that they had no interest in the outcome "as we are a breed club not a registry." Meanwhile the breed club's newsletter editor wrote editorials with such headings as, "Do We Really Need New Genes?" Quite a few of the membership were actually in favour of the acceptance of Shakal as a Siberian Husky, but that cut no ice with the power elite of the breed club. Thus -- I repeat for emphasis -- the attitude of the breed club and the refusal of CKC to do its job of registering a breeder's broodstock led inevitably to schism within the breed.

That story can probably be repeated in a multitude of specific breed situations in other breeds, with minor changes of the particular details. (As I revise this series of forum posts into a document for publication, I have just noticed another minor breed -- the Plummer Terrier, created by Dr. David Plummer in the 1950s -- with no fewer than four registries and political problems very similar to those of the Chinook.)

Another regular matter for dispute in breed clubs is the Breed Standard. Usually initiatives for changing the standard come up every ten to twenty years, quite often with the result that the owners/breeders of whichever "type" was "in" for the past decade or so suddenly discover that they and their type are now "out," specifically discriminated against in the new standard. An example of this from the Siberian Husky realm was the continued efforts to declare white coat colour a disqualification under the breed standard -- a battle that stemmed from the historical fact that Oliver Shattuck's white Siberians Ch. Northern Light Kobuck (the first bench champion of the breed) and Pola defeated many of the popular show dogs of the day owned by those who later formed the Siberian Husky Club of America (including the famous couple Milton and Eva B. Seeley). Those efforts were still going on as late as 1968 -- though Kobuck and Pola were born in 1928 and 1929! Dog show grudges last a long time and obviously can affect breed politics for many decades after their first causes. Had the political effort to force a disqualification succeeded, no doubt today we would have a separate breed of white Siberians.

The Siberian Husky coat colour issue is far from unusual. There are now White German Shepherd breed clubs -- and registries -- due to the non-acceptance of that colour phase by other breeders. Colour is in fact quite frequently a cause of gene-pool splitting in existing dog breeds. Whatever the cause of a political split, the final result is a divided gene pool, two genetic groups where before there was but one; the two groups are thenceforward unavailable to one another for breeding purposes. That result occurs because registries are intimately involved in breed politics.

Dog Politics Equals Bad Genetics

It should now be self-evident that the existing structure of the dog game, riddled as it is with internecine dog-politics in which the registries are deeply involved, guarantees bad genetics. The breed purity fetish mandates both closed stud books and an inexorable tendency toward inbreeding, as well as (seemingly) tiny founder groups that cannot be expanded later in the game. Breed club and dog show one-upmanship guarantee factionalism, breed schisms, and extremes of inbreeding and cosmetic artificial selection -- not to mention the breed standard "disqualification" system.

Thus we have a situation in which founder effect is maximised -- always a bad thing genetically. Genetic drift is also maximised. Gene pools are quite frequently split. Outbreeding becomes difficult if not impossible. Inbreeding is regarded as "the royal road to success" (at least in the show ring). Then, when recessive genetic defects start to become a problem in breed gene pools rendered depauperate by the aforementioned tendencies, the breed clubs and the registries agree that what is needed is stringent screening and yet more selection. It is hard to see how the picture could be much worse than it is. It is almost as though the entire system had been designed for genetic self-destruction. No wonder some call the effects of the purebred registry system "genetic genocide."

Part 4

Is there no way out?

How can this situation be remedied? That is the burning question. The "diversity breeding" movement has been around for fifteen years or so, at the least. A modicum of awareness has perhaps been raised, in some circles at least. But the mainstream of the dog world has scarcely changed. It is difficult to see how it could alter without a drastic change of players. AKC, CKC, the breed clubs, the dog show judges and the showdog world generally, genetic-disease foundations like OFA and CERF -- all of these have vested interests in the status quo. One doubts that they desire change at all. Meanwhile, dogs and their owners suffer unnecessarily as the piper must be paid, while the price in genetic disease increases inexorably.

Just recently it struck me that there IS a way out. The trouble is that, although quite logical, it is an expedient so radical that I fear few will even understand it, and quite probably none would be willing to accept it. Nevertheless, as a thought experiment, let us look at what the dog world might be like if the registries were to get out of breed politics altogether and stick exclusively to the business of recording, storing, and certifying canine data. By that I mean exactly what I say -- let someone else give dog shows and keep show records, and confer titles; let someone else worry about screening programmes; let someone else administer "responsible breeder" programmes, "canine good citizen" programmes, ditto field trials, obedience trials, and whatever else that registries now do that is not concerned with merely keeping accurate pedigree records.

First off, by freeing so much energy and resources hitherto tied up in other issues, they should be able to raise their standards of data gathering and record keeping. In order to keep reliable and unchallengeable records, they might decide to make DNA testing a mandatory part of the registration process, or at least to institute routine photo identification of every dog, together with required photographic proof of mating. That would go a long way towards making pedigree records credible -- which they seldom are at the present time.

In order to get the breed clubs and breed-club politics off their backs, the registries would have to take a totally NEUTRAL and PASSIVE stance with respect to DEFINING DOG BREEDS. That shouldn't be hard, since it is virtually impossible to define a breed anyway -- certainly impossible without the political apparatus of breed standards, breed-club-determined founder sets, etc.

But HOW to implement something like this? Simple! Let the registries discard the "breed" concept completely. Now I'm sure my readers will conclude that Jeffrey has finally lost his marbles. Well, remember, this is just a thought experiment, and bear with me.

Registries would then concentrate simply upon recording all available pertinent data each individual dog. Its photograph, from right side, left side, and front, recording clearly its colour, markings and other individual identifying characteristics. To back that up, tattoo identification number -- required. Date of birth, sire and dam (verified by DNA and/or photographic proof of mating), together with the known pedigree of both parents. Place of birth, owner at birth, subsequent owners. (Litter registration probably should be accompanied by photos of the litter with its dam, too; also photos of each individual whelp at birth, three weeks, and eight weeks would probably be a good idea.) Any other pertinent data -- working data, health screening data, genetic data, whatever is known about each dog. If it's an imported dog, full details and documentation of the importation. And finally, the "breed" of each parent, either as documented by existing registration papers, or as stated by the owner. But with a difference -- that the breed is recorded only as one more datum. No value judgments to be made on that basis!

This kind of registry would not care whether one parent was described as a "Labrador Retriever" and the other described as a "Siberian Husky." The registry would be, as I said, PASSIVE and NEUTRAL in that respect; it would be providing a record-keeping service, only recording data for breeders, without passing judgment (other than verifiability) on those data; what the owner then did with the data, or how he might interpret them, would be his own business.

At a single stroke, this way of doing things would revolutionise the entire dog world. Let me explain just how.

A World Without Breed Registries

For registries to discard breed designations and breed pedigree barriers would constitute a revolution. No question about that. But surely the losses involved in so radical a move would be catastrophic? Not necessarily.

To begin with, to de-emphasise breeds (collective identity) would necessarily mean that individual dogs and bloodlines would be re-emphasised. Pedigrees would mean much more than they do now. Since they would be reliable pedigrees, that would probably be a good thing. The pedigree would prove the individual dog's line of descent, laying out his ancestors for whatever they were worth. In many cases it would become evident, since the dog no longer had automatic value as a purebred example of such-and-such breed, that those ancestors weren't worth much of anything. But a proven line of purpose-bred animals of known performance capabilities might be worth much more.

What is more, since (as I envision this system) everyone would be using the same registries (and/or all registries would be interchangeable, recognising one another's records), there would be no more forced splitting of gene pools.

There would be no more instances in which dogs, or bloodlines, were "lost" to those who might wish to avail themselves of them, through mere registry politics. Any stud dog would theoretically be available for breeding to any bitch, as long as the two owners could agree; there would be no paper or registry barriers in the way of any mating. An imported dog from Siberia (for example) would be at no particular disadvantage; anyone who saw value in him would be able to breed from him and register the progeny. (As now, nobody would be compelled to breed from him. But those who wished to, would encounter no other obstacles than dealing with his owner.)

I repeat, there would be no splitting of gene pools, because breed clubs would lose all power over registries, hence lose much of their power over dog owners. They would have to rely upon argument and persuasion to enforce their judgments and their dog-politics, and anyone who disagreed might tell them to go to hell with impunity and continue to breed his dogs according to his own best judgment, since his registrations would never be at risk. This system would put everyone on an equal footing, where only canine merit would count.

Diversity breeders in this system would encounter no obstacles in breeding for genetic health. If they felt the need to outbreed, they could do so -- and do it in whatever way they felt best. The results would be recorded in a reliable pedigree, and would stand or fall on their own merits.

Likewise, the breed purists would encounter no problems. They could continue to inbreed and to be as elitist as they liked -- and the results would stand or fall on their own merits.

Breeders of "designer dogs" would enjoy the same standard of record-keeping as anyone else and would have respected papers for their Puggles and Labradoodles. Likewise the breeders of wolf hybrids.

Breeders of SAR and service dogs could continue to breed exclusively for specialised abilities, without hindrance; and might get a boost from enhanced cross-straining of relatively unrelated working animals. They would have no arbitrary paper obstacles hindering them from breeding pure performance animals.

In such a system, everyone could "do his own thing" without let or hindrance, with no pedigree barriers or registry politics. Politics there would surely be, and breed clubs would surely continue to exist -- but defanged and declawed, unable to deny registration to anyone.

Although it is impossible to say for sure, I rather imagine that breed purism might quickly decline to a much lower level than that which presently obtains, since the connection between breed and registration would be severed. Breeds would no doubt persist, but in a rather looser and more generic form, perhaps. Small breed populations might have an easier time surviving, since they would easily be able to make use of closely-related populations if and when extinction threatened.

What would actually be lost? Difficult to say . . . a lot of pretence and myth, almost certainly, that is presently part of the apparatus of purebred breeds. I find it hard to decide specifically what would be lost in this system. I rather think that many of the losses that are now part and parcel of the breed-purity, closed-studbook game would no longer happen. (The McFaul/Shearer strain would not have been lost to Siberian Husky fanciers under this system. Neither Chinooks nor Seppalas would suffer a three-way gene pool split.)

A great deal of present elitism and snobbery would tend to look just foolish; these attitudes might become unimportant minority enclaves. It could tend rather to democratise the dog game to a surprising extent. It would make of it more of an individual thing by diminishing the arbitrary collective identities conferred by breeds. Dog shows might diminish in popularity, or at least become a more relaxed pastime.

The trouble is, I can't see the dog world ever buying this one. AKC and CKC would have to crash and burn, for starters. The Old Guard in both organisations would have to relinquish, or be deprived of, their entrenched control. Given the present proliferation of minor alternative registries of all sorts, I can't see how one might start small with a "thought-experiment" registry and build credibility for it in any reasonable time-frame. I'm afraid it would have to be big almost from the outset in order to become a practical reality.

I can't quite see how half-measures of any kind would work. But perhaps someone younger and more innovative than I may see something I've overlooked, or find some features of the foregoing discourse that could somehow be adapted to the current system.

So that's what has been running around in Jeffrey's head whilst the AKC prepares its hostile takeover bid for my wife's Chinooks. What, I wonder, do others think?